The sight of the two Robert Downeys together—Sr., the wryly impious New York underground filmmaker, and Jr., the Hollywood and Marvel superstar—is always a little jarring at first. “The two superficially represent something of an ironic ideological divide,” writes Vikram Murthi for IndieWire: “A perma-cult figure vs. one of the most recognized visages in the world. An infamously irreverent auteur vs. the symbol of cultural hegemony. Despite their differences in artistic practices, however,” father and son “remained refreshingly close over the years.”
Well over a decade before he passed away last year, Sr., the director of such landmark counterculture comedies as Chafed Elbows (1966) and Putney Swope (1969)—in the New York Times,Glenn Kenny calls them “the connective tissue between underground movies and the Marx Brothers”—suggested to Jr. that they make a film together about fathers and sons. Jr. tells IndieWire’s Marcus Jones that he recalls asking his father, “Would we be in it?” To which his father replied, “Maybe. Who knows.” Elsewhere, documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie,Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) was considering a profile of Jr., and when he approached his prospective subject, the actor pointed him toward his father. These two projects have melded to become “Sr.”
Currently streaming on Netflix, “Sr.” opens with a primer on the father’s films from the 1960s and ’70s, and if the clips whet your appetite for more, turn to Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr., our Criterion Channel program of five features, a tribute from cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and a 2012 interview with the filmmaker conducted by Paul Thomas Anderson. Reviewing “Sr.” for Sight and Sound, Hannah McGill notes that Jr. remarks in the film that PTA is the son his father wishes he’d had—and both of them “like to rub that in my face.” McGill emphasizes that the “point of this film is to emphasize love and not dysfunction; yet it’s these discreet acknowledgments of mistakes, insecurities, and problems that make it particularly moving.”
Looking back to the fifteen-year period when his life and career were a whirlwind, Sr. tells Jr. that it was “total insanity.” In an exchange too good to leave out of the trailer, Jr. suggests: “I think we would be remiss to not discuss its effect on me.” “Boy,” comes his father’s reply, “I could sure love to miss that discussion.” It’s impossible to know whether his father’s casting him in his films—“Have any hair on your balls?” asks the five-year-old Jr. in his on-screen debut in Pound (1970)—or the freely accessible weed or being ushered into X-rated movies as a kid steered Jr. toward the infamous long lost weekend of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it certainly didn’t steer him away from it.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds “Sr.” to be “sweet, sad, and affectionate,” and Ty Burr notes that the dynamic between the father and son is “no less complicated for its years of mellowing. The scars are still tender. The tenderness is overwhelming.” Early on, Sr. sets out to make his own cut of the film, and Smith and producer Jr. agree. Rolling Stone’s David Fear notes that “the dial on [Sr.’s] gruff, Gotham-born-and-bred attitude is still permanently set somewhere between IDGAF and GFY. So why not give him the chance to do his thing while they do theirs?”
Swaths of Sr.’s version have made it into “Sr.” but the latter portion of the film is given over to the father’s gradual succumbing to Parkinson’s disease and the son’s struggle to wrap his head and heart around the family’s approaching loss. “There were times,” Jr. tells Marcus Jones, “when Chris and I looked at each other, and we knew that, hopefully, we’d be fortunate enough to see this through to the end of his life and that it would be something that he would look back on as happy, closing arguments for his art, his life, his role as a parent, as a husband, as a whatever. And it’s a tricky thing because the jury’s out on all of us.”
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